Why Won’t My Child Try New Foods?

In-home ABA therapy from The Cardinal Center is available for children who are picky about the food they eat

Why Won’t Your Child Try New Foods?

Children have a reputation for being picky about the foods they try — but when your child is on the autism spectrum (ASD), picky eating can reach a whole new level. Is it really picky eating, or something else?

A child on the autism spectrum can be very selective about the food they eat

Food Selectivity and Food Sensitivity

You may have asked yourself, “Why is my child a picky eater?” Often, we blame “picky eating” on a child demonstrating their preferences for sugar or savory treats, but it can be much more than simply refusing to eat cauliflower because they would rather have cake.

Food selectivity is broadly defined as the consumption of an extremely limited amount of food. There are three different categories of food selectivity:

  1. Food refusal: This can include not eating at all or refusing certain meals.
  2. Limited food repertoire: Avoiding certain foods or, more frequently, an entire food group (ex., all vegetables).
  3. High frequency single food intake: Much like hyperfixation on an interest, a child may only eat a single food (ex., chicken nuggets) for an extended period of time.

Food sensitivity, however, is more about the body’s reaction to food. Unlike an allergy, symptoms may be uncomfortable but are not life-threatening. A common food sensitivity is lactose intolerance, which causes many gastrointestinal issues that could be upsetting to a child (and most adults). If you suspect a food sensitivity, rather than food selectivity, seek additional guidance from a medical professional.

Food texture sensitivity is common among children with ASD

Textures, Tastes, and Trying Times

There are many reasons your child with autism may be food selective.

As with most things in their world, sensory concerns may be the cause. Texture is a common food complaint amongst many children, not just those with ASD. For example, a child may dislike the chunky texture of a particular brand of applesauce and refuse to eat it. It may then result in the child refusing applesauce altogether, even if you find a different brand that is completely smooth and without chunks of apple.

Taste can also affect their desire to consume a particular food. Unfortunately, taste is subjective, and often there is no way to change a child’s opinion regarding their disgust for broccoli. Smell could be a factor, prompting a child to refuse food before it even arrives on their plate or on the table. Finally, food temperatures can also warn a child off a meal; too hot or too cold, with everything in between, could make food unappealing.

Additional considerations are the routines around mealtime and the environment for the meal. If your child finds part of the preparation for lunchtime stressful, it could affect their desire to eat and possibly lead to other behaviors. If the environment is overstimulating or different than usual, such as a meal at a relative’s house, it could result in refusal of food.

Have you ever seen a child refuse to eat bread because it touched their peas? This is another common reason for food selectivity. In the child’s mind, the food they wanted to eat has been “contaminated” by another food they do not like. Even if you re-plate the food, or remake another meal, a child may continue to refuse to eat.

An ABA therapist at Cardinal can help children with food selectivity concerns

How Cardinal Can Help

Overcoming food selectivity can feel like a lot: modifying sensory characteristics of the food, providing appropriate eating utensils, and creating a less-stimulating environment — all while being concerned about your child’s nutritional needs.

Collaborating with dietitians, occupational therapists, and psychologists can be a great resource. At The Cardinal Center, our individualized ABA therapy can address food selectivity and work to make your family’s mealtimes more pleasant.

An ABA therapist at Cardinal can help children with food selectivity concerns


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